When it comes to the inventions of Australian icons, no city can top Melbourne. Among myriad others, the Victorian capital has been the birthplace of Vegemite, AFL and the ute. The only way this trio could be more quintessentially Antipodean is if they were jointly harmonising Waltzing Matilda while making some damper over a campfire after a hard day of shearing at the Ashes. There is, however, another contender that some would argue is equally archetypal, if somewhat unacknowledged.
Back in 1974, the Breville company – which had been in business since 1932 – launched a new product that toasted sandwiches. It turned out to be a crunchy revolution. Within the first year alone, 400,000 units had been sold nationally and, bearing in mind the population at that time stood at a smidge under 14 million, you’re talking serious market inroads for a product barely 12 months old. Its fame soon spread across the Tasman and eventually to the UK, where it was such a hit that the device itself soon became known simply as ‘the Breville’, in much the same way that generations of consumers referred to vacuum cleaners as Hoovers.
Why, when toasters had been around for almost three quarters of a century, did this gadget become as much a part of Australian life as Richie Benaud’s voice in summer, gardenias in spring and fluffy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror?
On the outside, it was a sleek rectangle of shiny stainless steel, in a world where Bakelite had yet to become cool again. When you popped in a couple of pieces of Tip Top, you were rewarded with two perfectly golden triangles whose edges had been steam-sealed, which were separated on a precise 45-degree angle and, if you had one of the fancier models, bore a scalloped motif thanks to a pillowy pattern on the heated plates.
But, as with so many meaningful and lasting relationships, it was what was on the inside that counted. By some mysterious alchemy, your sandwich filling was steamed to perfection – honey caramelised and cheese surrendered to the melt, all encased in a one-handed crispy package. Better still, you didn’t need fancy ingredients to whip up what was as close to gourmet as any suburban kid could hope for. In fact, if the bread was a bit stale and the fromage was what the French might call ‘le Tasty’, the better the result.
There was also an art to eating a toastie (just the word itself is comforting). It came down to timing. Many a jaffle newbie made the mistake of thinking that the heat of the contents matched its crusty envelope, only to find their mouth occupied from molars to incisors and tonsils to lips with a molten mush of cheddar and nuclear tomato. Which, of course, resulted in one dancing about with an open jaw while frantically trying to fan cool air onto your palate with your free hand. Wait too long, however, and concealment became congealment, resulting in a film of filling which clung to the palate like a co-dependent couple on their first overseas trip together.
“Many a jaffle newbie found their mouth occupied from molars to incisors with a molten mush of nuclear tomato”
Over time, refinements were introduced that made an excellent product even better. Your fancier versions came with thermostats so that the sambo could run from merely heat-kissed to nigh-on almost chocolate brown. These clever machines were also the first time many Australians were introduced to the wonders of Teflon – which meant that even baked-on detritus could be removed with a firm wipe of paper towel. Miraculous. #scrub-free zone.
Today, these trusty gadgets battle for prominence with the more fashionable sandwich presses that take up double the bench space and couldn’t seal two pieces of bread – sorry, single-origin artisanal focaccia – if their lives depended on it. But the original was built to endure. Homes across Australia contain Brevilles that couples who courted in the 1970s and 1980s received for wedding presents, and are still using. In fact, with some cases, the machines have lasted longer than the marriages in celebration of which they were once presented. Now, that’s a lasting commitment.